What are the Commons and why should we care?

What are the Commons and why should we care?
David Schlecht

We’ve discussed the concerns over our Commons in previous posts, specifically on Reinventing Capitalism.

The Commons were originally defined as the parts of the property of a society that all or most of the people shared. As an example, a small tribe may need nearby grazing lands where they can allow their horses to graze.

As long as the tribe is small and as long as none of the tribe members decides to make a profit off the commons, everything works perfectly. But sooner or later someone will find a way to make money off allowing his cattle to graze and the more cattle he can use to exploit the free commons, the more money he can make at the expense of the rest of the tribe.

This situation typically leads to an agreement (law) that the commons are for everyone equally and nobody should make a profit at the expense of anyone else.

When humans weren’t over-populating the earth, many argued that the commons were limitless and we could always move to a new land once we’ve exhausted the current commons. Back when America was young, we could dump all our waste in the rivers and it would just mysteriously disappear, or so we thought.

This misconception that the commons were limitless caused America’s forefathers to overlook the immense need to protect the commons. They didn’t say we shouldn’t protect the commons but they didn’t explicitly protect them to the level we need today with our over population problems.

Today we are beginning to realize that everything provided by the earth should reasonably be considered the commons and protected as such. Automobile manufacturers are making profits by building cars that spew their waste into our limited atmosphere and not paying to clean it up. Eventually there won’t be any clean air left unless we protect our commons.

Many industries are making a profit while they dump their poisonous waste into our rivers and streams. Eventually there will be no more clean water unless we start protecting our commons.

Many more industries are treating our earth as a dumping ground for their toxic waste, and then moving on to new land when the run out of room. Eventually we will run out of land unless we start protecting our commons.

In present times, we consider our commons to include things like our airwaves. Also, utilities that have a right-of-way across our properties are also reasonably society’s commons.

Another kind of common is that which is required for a successful society. This includes education, the press (or specifically newspapers as defined by America’s founding fathers). Some argue that reasonable medical services are required for a successful society and should also be treated as our commons. That is a whole other topic for a post of another day.

America felt that phones where required for a functioning society so American tax dollars were spent to ensure that everyone could get phone service. The same applied to the supply of energy. These are also commons. That’s not to say that nobody can make money off them, but that no one can have such a strangle hold on them that people die so big business can make more money. Sounds like America’s medical system, doesn’t it?

Protecting the commons is the only way, I repeat, the only way that society can survive.

As we’ve seen, commons can change over time. What is required for a society to flourish today is not the same as what will be needed in the future.